Monday, November 28, 2011

The Witless Prattle Chronicles of THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES

So, as I cast about for things to write about now that the Deep Space Nine reviews aren't around to give this stuff some kind of structure, wouldn't you know it, my sister lend me both DVD collections of Termintor: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which was good in that I was rather keen to watch the whole thing (having frequently missed episodes here and there when was actually on the air) and I was even more grateful when I realised this was a rich vein to mine, as I could turn this into a blog post.

This then, is the resultant post.

Despite the best efforts of people making Terminator movies in this new century (and Kyle Reese inadvertently cock-blocking me that one time, in a story I will never tell you, but invite you to speculate about to your heart's content) I am a fan of the Terminator franchise . . .er, the first couple of movies, anyhow. Then came Terminator 3, which made me sad in that it managed to undo Terminator 2, more or less and did so rather lazily ("Wait at Crystal Peak" was all John Connor had to do? Really? A fucking shut-in with a ham radio could have managed that) and I haven't seen Terminator Salvation yet, because it's buried in my Netflix queue somewhere and Batman leading the war against the machines feels a little like a foregone conclusion, somehow.

So when a TV series was mooted, I was a little skeptical. Oh it could work--a long, open-ended chase structure has worked like gangbusters in the past: The Fugitive and The Incredible Hulk come to mind--but the most recent thing we'd seen from the franchise was Terminator 3 and . . .man, it was just so goddamn disappointing, wasn't it, and one wondered if the people who hold the reins on the Terminator franchise (God knows who they are, given that the rights issues for the Terminator derailed an attempt at a fifth movie recently. For all you or I know, we actually might own the rights for the Terminator franchise right now. We can't know for sure) would put their best foot forward.

Well, fortunately for me, they did. The first season of Terminator (I am not typing out "The Sarah Connor Chronicles" anymore, as that subtitle makes it seem about when she was 12 and vacationed in Nantucket and was all boy-crazy.) is actually pretty awesome, as it keeps the focused energy and stripped-down approach of the first and second movies--the good guys are being chased, and are on the defensive even though the mission statement of the TV show is that they're tired of running. It's a good enough concept . . .

. . .for the small handful of episodes that comprised the first season. It goes a bit like this: Sarah and John are saved by River Tam from Firefly who is a Terminator and has a time machine which allows them to jump from 1999 to 2007 and do what I did--namely, skip the third movie. From there, they decide to focus on eliminating the threat of Skynet rather than just running from the Terminators over and over again, and given how amorphous that threat turns out to be (Skynet is a chess program! No, wait it's this thing!) that's a broad enough goal to hang a TV series on.

The first season is pretty tight and there's not a lot of flab to be had--there's one recurring nemesis in Cromartie, the Terminator who ends up looking a hell of a lot like the guy who shot Wild Bill Hickock, a goal to track down The Turk, a chess program which is fated to become Skynet, and John and River Tam adjusting to life in high school, which River Tam adjusts to about as well as expected.

And then season 2 happens and it all goes a bit wrong. I'd like to think it's a fault of ambition more than anything, as Lost and Battlestar Galactica were busy making named for themselves at the same time Terminator is going on and that made it OK for shows of this genre to have lots of dangling plot threads, incoherent storytelling, and muddled questions with what turn out to be painfully boring answers, and a complete and utter lack of focus from what was pretty damn focused only a season before. And really, something with the name "Terminator" on it, shouldn't feel like it's spinning its wheels this much.

The second season stresses credulity and patience on so many fronts things ultimately break down. For one thing--who in the future doesn't have a fucking time machine? Seriously, half the population of Greater Los Angeles seems to be future refugees or Terminators. Jesse is perhaps the least convincing future solider ever minted, and her plot to keep John away from River Tam with Riley's Boobs (and to a lesser extent, Riley herself--I know this sounds salacious, but honestly . . .her boobs really are everywhere) would have some credibility if 1) we got some sense of the downside of John chilling with River Tam 2) Riley and Jesse weren't both lightweights and 3) It has a resolution that in any way justified the amount of time spent on it (SPOILER: it doesn't)

More than that, there's Sarah going nts and having visions (or maybe she isn't! HOLY SHIT WHAT SYMBOLISM) we've got the T-1000 who runs her own company who's doing . . .something, and for a large part that something seems to be playing with Bionicles and talking about Jesus, and everyone's just kinda hanging out in search of a direction.

And then with about two episodes to go, we get one, and for all the shit I have slung at the second season, I gotta say . . .I really do like the ending, as it manages to be something of a head-fuck, but in such a way that feels like a Terminator head-fuck would be rather than the whole nonsense with the dream sequences and three dots and all we'd slogged through previously.

Despite the wrongness of the second season generally, I found I still liked the show, and decided that the problems with the second season stemmed generally from the fact that they weren't really sure they'd have a second season after the first one, and they'd fallen in with a bad crowd (I very much hope we're done with the BSG era "whatever seems like a good idea at the time run with it and also talk about God some more" style plotting, because I am beyond done with that bullshit) but was a far surer way forward than damn near anything else the Terminator franchise has rolled out here since the second movie . . .


Diana Kingston-Gabai said...


I was quite fond of the first season - partly because they had the tenacity to just drop the third movie and acknowledge that yes, Virginia, it was quite awful and we're all better off without it... but also because I was highly skeptical that anyone could portray Sarah Connor as well as Linda Hamilton, and Lena Headey actually grew on me after a while. And who would've thought the dork from Beverly Hills 90210 could actually pull off a compelling character?

You're absolutely right that the wheels come off during the second season - I actually liked Jesse for what she represented (a member of the Resistance who was actively working against John Connor and Skynet) but Riley? Very much the reincarnation of Scrappy Doo. But then Sarah's having visions and Shirley Manson's growing a Jehovah's Witness in her basement and the FBI agent's a Bible-thumper (oh good, more God talk!) and really, what in the name of Emmett Brown is going on here?

I will say this for the last few episodes, though: they did a remarkable job of paring down the cast in increasingly surprising and brutal ways. Derek's exit was particularly shocking for how mundane it is, and in the end you're left with John, alone, finally having to stand up for himself. I would've preferred a bit more closure for the finale, but as an ending, it works well enough. :)

Kazekage said...

Yes, even if TSCC had never done a damn thing else right, deleting T3 was enough for me to cut it a lot of slack. I think skipping ahead a little also allowed them a little leeway with recasting everyone--since things were going in a different direction, everyone could look and act different. It's the Star Trek 11 effect.

And no, I could scarcely beleive Brian Austin Green could be that badass on his best day.

Oh, the idea of Jesse is sound enough, and the concept that the war is now really being faught by proxy in the past is really celever. I just never bought that Jesse had the gravitas necessary to fill that role. Riley . . .well, she'll always be the autistic girl from All My Children to me, but she really didn't have much to do but threaten to spill out of her top and whine whine wine all the time time time.

The reason the wheels come off, and I wish I'd thought to say this in the article rather than when I was talking to someone else is that the Terminator storytelling engine just doesn't allow for discursive open-ending puttering about with dream-sequences and visions that form the spine of some big myth arc. At its heart it's a chase move on top of a chase movie on top of a chase movie.

Let's take the first movie: The Terminator is chasing Sarah. Kyle is chasing the Terminator. The police are chasing Kyle, and everyone we care about is trying to prevent the horrible fate that's chasing humanity as a whole. Constant pursuit makes the story go. There are some quiet bits, but they never last more than five-ten minutes, whereas that damn sleep clinic thing was what? Three hours? Four?

When you try to lay a bunch of vague bits of symbolism in there it feels a bit slow and flabby and, well, it's not Terminator anymore then, is it?

I do like the way you phrased the whole John Henry thing. :) I kinda wish that had played a bit better--I did like the bits where he kept playing more and more advanced games, although keeping him in the basement playing D and D is probably playing way too much on the stereotype.

I LOVED those last few episode, because it's like they remembered what the show's supposed to be about and put the pedal to the floor. I kinda wish Derek had been taken out sooner--not because I didn;t like his character, but because the show needed that "anyone can die" edge to it.

And I do love that ending so much. Not just because of the symbolism, but because it's such a kick in the balls to everything the Terminator story has told you about John Connor up to that point, and yet . . .it still works with the knowledge we've had.

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

True, but I think they were also implicitly acknowledging that the story doesn't really work without Sarah: it's her dynamic with John, rather than John's dynamic with the Resistance or converted Terminators, that really drives the emotional core of the series IMO.

It's all the more frustrating because they were really the first human women added to the mythos, and neither of them came off very well (though I did like Jesse's tearful attempt to justify herself to Derek before he gunned her down - if they'd written her that well from the start, things might have turned out differently).

You can always edit the article, you know. ;) And you're absolutely right: any Terminator narrative that has the first two films as its base has to work within that framework, and it's just not the place for importing discarded "Lost" plotlines.

I suppose the problem with the "chase" formula is that it can't be sustained indefinitely, especially if you're unable to actually have real closure; there was never going to be a point where Sarah or John could walk up to the embodiment of Skynet and shoot it dead. I understand why they tried to change things up - I just wish they'd given it a bit more thought. Who knows, it might've bought them another season.

On the positive side, if he'd gotten any further along the game continuum we'd probably have to put up with "Wargames" references. :)

I think clustering all the deaths together at the end had more of an emotional impact, though - it really felt like the Connors' entire world was shrinking with every step they took.

It's unlikely they planned it from the start, but when I was watching the series for the second time, there's a scene in the first season where a wounded Derek is flashing back to his time in the Resistance and his first meeting with John Connor - only the John he sees is "present-day" John. Clearly a dodge at the time... but given the finale, it's quite possibly a literal memory: the Future John everyone talks about, the John who sends Cameron back, is actually the John we've known all along. I like that idea. :)

Kazekage said...

It really doesn't, does it? Sarah is a more interesting character because she's not a soldier born, no matter how much she tries to be--she's the outsider thrust into a crazy situation she can't really comprehend, and we're meant to identify with that. Take her out and . . .well, it's ultimately just war in the future, innit?

I really wanted it to work, really I did, but I don't think they had a clear idea of what their Big Plan was supposed to be until a lack of time forced them to wrap it up, and . . .well, it didn't have the proper gravitas at the end, did it? In fact, a lot of TSCC's problems solved themselves when external pressures forced them to stop fucking around and get on with it already.

I could, but I kinda hope people stick around for these discussions--I consider them as much a part of the post as the post.It really does frame it well, doesn't it? When you have that kind of relentless forward momentum, ideally you don't have time for that sort of navel-gazing.

It's a sturdy formula, but it's not a deep one, and really, any long-running series that uses it tends to downplay the actual chase to deal with more immediate concerns. I don't know how they could do it in a sustained way without it becoming Terminator of the week or locking it down to single-season problems (which they were kind of doing--season 1 is the fight with Chromartie, season two is figuring out what's the deal with Weaver, etc.) but then, lack of focus was The Problem all along, eh?

"Miss Weaver, I am going through Falken's Maze." ;)

It was, and to some extent it worked, but some of it felt like very quickly ticking off boxes. I mean, you barely get the business with the T-1000 on the sub explained before it's paid off, and it doesn't quite have the punch it should because it not played off correctly.

Oh man, I need to go back and watch for that, because while it assumes an enormous amount of pre-planning that was just never on display, but it would really kick over the game board, huh? I wish there were more twists like that, which have an internal and consistent logic, make sense, and make you really pumped to see where they take it. :)

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

Quite true, but I think it goes even further - Sarah's really the only character who's ever at risk in the Terminator universe. Having established that humanity literally rises or falls on John's shoulders, he can never be killed off. But when Sarah gets involved in a dangerous situation, there's always the possibility that it'll be her last stand; that makes us much more invested in what's happening to her.

I imagine that's the epitaph for a great many series that had excellent premises and competent actors - you pointed out once that there has to be a balance between having a Big Plan in the first place and adhering so tightly to it that the story gets railroaded, and I think that's becoming something of a lost art.

Overall, I think the first season got it right: you had clusters of two or three episodes which were high-octane action/chase stories, then some brief downtime to get in some deep characterization before ramping things up again.

In a way, BSG can be viewed as a series that at the very least managed to sustain the chase formula in a more viable way and for a longer period of time - it is, ultimately, a story about the last bastion of humanity in a state of constant flight, but in that case it's the chase itself which partly defines the way other subplots unfold (at least before God takes an active hand/tentacle in things).

"The only winning move is not to play." :)

True, but I think by that point cancellation was practically assured, and I was just grateful for the closure. Jesse's actions finally made sense in the end, even if her plan was doomed from the start - I love the scene she has with John where he flatly informs her that even if Cameron had killed Riley, it wouldn't have changed anything for him. You get the sense that the Connors are never forced to face the concept of futility in a direct way - there's no point to the story otherwise - but Jesse's arc turned out about a woman who does her very best to change the future, and fails.

Well, realistically speaking I doubt it's anything more than a happy accident (especially since, if they were able to plan and execute a twist like that, they wouldn't have gotten stuck midway through the second season with the three dots and the sleep clinic). But on the other hand, I recall Cameron hinting that Future John wasn't that "different" from Present John, which can certainly be read in several ways...

Kazekage said...

Yeah. I've kinda noticed that. You'd think eventually that John would supplant her as the focus of all the jeopardy, but it never quite goes that way. Kinda makes John more a McGuffin than a actual character, really . . .

Or just being able to parcel out and properly pace your Big Plan out in sufficient increments that it doesn't seem like a lot of meandering without much point and even less payoff. It's the same problem comics had in the abyssal depths of decompressed stories--nothing really happened for entire issues at a time and no one's gonna stick around for a whole bunch of nothing on the vague promise that there's a single tiny gold coin at the bottom of it.

Yeah, I think the first season thundered on a pretty good clip and had enough narrative urgency to fend off being so self-indulgent as they would when they had more room to stretch out.

Uhm. . .maybe? Thing is, it seems like BSG wasn't a "chase" show for the most part after the second season. Then things get a bit weird. The problem is, the central questions of the show--"Does humanity survive? What does that mean? Do they deserve to survive?"--get ignored, buried under religious buffoonery and finally waved off by blaming it on God.

I really did like that scene--as with many things in the second season, once they actually HAD to start wrapping things up, they got really good and a LOT more focused which was the real problem all along. I don't really ever think we got a clear picture of Jesse's motivation and she just didn't really come across as the threat she should have been, but, the payoff made me appreciate the effort.

I don't know, though. As is often the custom now on shows that have some big mythic arc, I'm pretty sure they were making it up as they went along and bogged down in the middle until the cancellation boom got lowered and got them focused.

That's an interesting little tidbit, if true. Makes you wish he'd written finis to the Terminator storyline before he went all Captain Planet on us . . .

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

In fairness, Thomas Dekker does more to make John a believable character than any of his film counterparts... but then, given that he's up against the nasal Edward Furlong and the laconic Christian Bale, there's not much competition.

To be honest, decompression could work, at least in theory - IMO, the reason it never pans out is because the end result doesn't justify the wait. It's one thing to wait five months for an explosive climax that delivers a last-act punch; it's another to have just a sixth month of the same old blathering, with no resolution in sight.

It probably helped that there were only nine episodes in S1; 22 is perhaps a bit much for this particular premise.

I think that's largely because the chase pretty much ended with New Caprica - the Cylons caught them, and then we got to see what happened, and then the humans fled again. But there really wasn't anywhere to go (except Earth) after that, and it showed: they'd get stalled by singing planets and weird nebulae and radiation storms, and it was just one contrivance after another. That "God" is established to be the ultimate facilitator of everything really shouldn't have come as a surprise given the circumstances... and yet it's still one of the most horrid endings to a great series I've ever seen. :)

To an extent, I think that's true of Riley as well - she was utterly unbearable, but for those brief moments where she's fighting for her life, you almost want to cheer her on.

That would've been nice. :) Still, in the final analysis I think it all holds up well enough on its own; loose ends were inevitable, but it's not nearly as bad as some of its contemporaries...

Kazekage said...

I liked that you ran through all that and managed a sick burn on Nick Stahl in the process. :)

Could it? I've never seen it done well, and you'd think by now someone would have made that slow pace work by now, and they just never do, really. There's fast paced, and there's slow paced, and there's decompression, which has no pacing at all. You just have to able to parcel out plot at some kind of speed, otherwise it's just long boring tableaus.

The pacing whiplash was pretty apparent, as I frequently wondered if they had enough story for those 22 episodes. I think 13 would have been a better target for them.

The problem is, God is just the feeble cherry on top of the sundae of foolishness. I mean, if you've done all this wandering around and basically devoted your third season to spinning your wheels with whatever nonsense seemed like a good idea at the time, you've kinda already irrevocably borked things. Really--I'm STILL annoyed about them saying "God did i" because it's cheap and stupid, but what did I really expect given what I'd seen thus far?

That was. . .odd. I remember those two things too and even I was like "Hang on. . ." The thing is, is that if he's going to gainsay everything Lion-O says . . .well, it kind of undercuts the "naw bro, I was always there for you" stuff from the finale a bit if we don;t see a bit more of the complexity in their relationship before then. That said, I did like the teeny revelation that came out--that the animals were all Mumm-Ra's slaves and really, the cats were pretty racist when you got down to it . . .it'd be nice to just push it a little bit further and examine some of those things again, as the show would do stuff like the "Forest of Magi Oar" episode and completely flip the hero/villain stuff on you halfway through.

Kazekage said...

For some reason I answered half of another comment on another comment thread. Sorry 'bout that. ^_^